December 19, 2014

Little Details: Red currants and stumbling goats

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By Kathy Bielawa Stamper

August 15, 2013

“Ludwika,” Wladek said, “I think our goat is dying!”

Wladek passed through the family garden as he returned from work. There, among carefully tended apple, pear and plum trees, the family goat was staggering about, banging its head nonsensically on the ground and bellowing.

My grandmother, alarmed by her husband’s concern, ran from the kitchen and came upon the scene of the disoriented caprine.

Was the goat ill? What possessed it to act so strangely? Was the family losing a valuable source of milk?

Then, grandmother remembered. She burst out laughing and said, “Wladek, I think she’s drunk.”

My grandparents were ethnic Poles, subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Wladek was born in Przemysl in 1890. Ludwika—translated as “Daisy”—was born in Jaroslaw in 1900. Poland, partitioned by its more aggressive neighbors in the late eighteenth century, was wiped off the map of Europe and did not become an independent nation again until 1918.

Wladek and Ludwika, as citizens of a newly incarnated nation, were pioneers of sorts during this drunken goat episode. They left their hometowns to settle in Turka, a small town in Western Ukraine, which was part of Poland between World War I and World War II. (This territory was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1945.)

It was here that grandfather built a house overlooking the Bieszczady Mountains. Grandmother cultivated a vast garden of vegetables, flowers and a smattering of fruit and berry trees. Root vegetables—potatoes, onions, turnips and beets—were harvested for storage in the root cellar. Apples, pears and plums were transformed into compotes, jams and jellies. The latter offered up a bit of summer warmth and sweetness when slathered on thick slices of grandmother’s home-baked rye bread.

Planning ahead and stocking up provided critical sustenance for the long Ukrainian winters when the fertile soil rested, encased in ice and snow. With nine children to feed, my father among them, keeping the larder full was crucial.

Grandmother also cultivated berries. Strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries, raspberries and red currants dotted her garden, adding rainbow hues of red, blue and green to the summer palette.

Red currant wine was one of my grandmother’s specialties. The delicate berries were picked, cleaned and stemmed. Mashing and mixing with sugar—without crushing the pits—served as a prelude to the extended fermentation process. Then, the straining would start. Again and again, grandmother ran the distillation through a sieve to produce a sweet, crimson wine.

This is where the goat comes in. It seems that this time, grandmother placed the bowl of discarded pits and mash outside the kitchen door, near her garden. The fermented berries released their alcoholic perfume, luring the unsuspecting goat. She sampled. She imbibed. She indulged. She got flat-out drunk. She staggered about, a four-legged, cloven-hoofed lush.

My Uncle Czeslaw, my father’s younger brother, is the keeper of family lore. He’s in his eighties now. He cultivates, unearths and preserves our stories as thoughtfully as he does his garden, an amazing sea of fruits, flowers and vegetables.

As I sat in my uncle’s living room, in his Socialist Realist apartment building a few short weeks ago, I asked for stories. He spoke of my grandparents, my long-deceased father, Russian and German occupation during World War II, and displacement when borders were redrawn at Yalta and my father’s family was forced to resettle in Silesia, a bombed-out zone that had been Germany before the war.

My uncle’s slate-blue eyes—eyes like my own—teared up as he spoke of the war. After listening intently, I then asked my uncle if he could think of a funny family story. And, he did.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston.  Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

 
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